Nature flagellates itself for creating “harms” and being “damaging” in its past publications

September 29, 2022 • 12:00 pm

It seems that science journals are in a race to see which can be the most penitential for apologizing for past publications that don’t comport with modern morality.  To use my Cultural Revolution analogy, they are competing to see who can hang the biggest “I was a bad and hurtful journal” sign around their necks.  Nature just entered the competition with the article below, which you can read for free.

It seems that the journal’s biggest no-no, and cause for apology, was publishing the work of Francis Galton (1822-1911), a Victorian polymath who made big contributions in statistics, anthropology, forensics (he invented a way of classifying fingerprints), and other areas. But he was also an advocate of eugenics, and his name has been removed from buildings and other venues in the last couple of years.  Although Galton’s views are abhorrent to modern sensibility, none of them, so far as I know, actually led to any eugenic actions that wouldn’t have been carried out without his writings (Hitler didn’t need Galton, and eugenics wasn’t practiced in England).

Though the word “damaging”, referring to Nature’s publications, is used 9 times, and they evoke the “harm” of their journal 6 times, it all seems to me a bit hyperbolic. Of course Galton was a racist, but is this an accurate statement?:

Galton’s scientifically inaccurate ideas about eugenics had a huge, damaging influence that the world is still grappling with. The idea that some groups — people of colour or poor people, for example — were inferior has fuelled irreparable discrimination and racism. Nature published several papers by Galton and other eugenicists, thus giving a platform to these views.

Irreparable discrimination and racism? I hope not! But let’s accept that Galton was a eugenicist, which he was, and that his views may have influenced other eugenicists, and move on to other mea culpas:

This is not just a problem in Nature’s deeper history. In more recent years, we have also, to our shame, published some articles that were offensive or destructive, or attracted criticism for being overly elitist. “The scientific journal, back in the day, was the mouthpiece to a very privileged and highly exclusive sector of society, and it is actually continuing to do the same thing today,” says Subhadra Das, a science historian and writer in London who has researched scientific racism and eugenics.

Since they cite none of these articles (“elitism”, really?), I can’t judge this statement.  Yes, Nature is considered one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world (Science is the other), but is that the kind of “privilege” and “exclusivity” they’re talking about? I don’t know, because they give no examples. (Save for Galton’s papers, citations of transgressing articles are scant—a common problem with this form of apology.)

There will be some redacting of the past, too:

We know that Nature’s archives contain numerous items that are harmful and can be upsetting. But, like other scholarly publishers, we think it is important to keep all of our content accessible, because it is part of the scientific and historical record. It is important for researchers today and in the future to study and learn from what happened in the past. That said, we are developing a way to alert readers that our archive contains articles that do not represent our current values and would be unacceptable to publish today.

What are “our current values”, and what if they change? Can’t we count on the readers to know whether an article is acceptable or unacceptable to publish today? Does Nature really need a Pecksniff to trawl through its archives to single out offensive articles and highlight them? And who will be the Pecksniff, the person who enforces “our current values”?

They don’t neglect colonialism, either, though again no examples are given:

The journal matured as Britain became the biggest colonial power in history — by 1919, the British Empire spanned roughly one-quarter of the world’s land and population. In their contributions, many scientists editing and writing for Nature endorsed the views of white, European superiority that drove this empire building. An air of imperiousness, imperialism, sexism and racism permeates many articles in Nature’s historical archive.

As it does all of British literature from that era! Who will apologize for that? And is there a need to?

. . . Nature’s archives also include harmful contributions from the fields of ecology, evolution, anthropology and ethnography, which were inextricably linked with colonial expansion. Another 1921 editorial reflected imperialist and racist views, reporting on a session at a meeting of what was then the British Association for the Advancement of Science “devoted to the discussion of the ways and means by which the science of anthropology might be made of greater practical utility in the administration of the Empire, particularly in relation to the government of our subject and backward races”. There are numerous other examples in which Nature published offensive, injurious and destructive views, cloaked in the veil of science.

They do mention one book review that was pretty sexist, written by editor Richard Gregory (1919-1939), and two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, but eve back then Nature criticized the anti-Semitism:

In the 1930s, the journal printed two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, a physicist, who wrote of the “damaging influence of Jews in German science”. At the time, Nature had taken a strong position in opposition to the rise of Nazis in Germany, which eventually led to the journal being banned there. Nature implied in an accompanying article that it had invited one of Stark’s contributions to show readers how shocking his words were, but it nevertheless exposed a wider audience to antisemitic views.

So is that a net bad or a net good? Nature opposed the Nazis and highlighted one article that denigrated Jews, but only to show that it was “shocking”.  Is this something the journal needs to apologize for?

One more example, but the articles aren’t cited or linked, so we can’t judge for ourselves:

Nature has published hurtful articles even in the past few years. One was an inaccurate, naive editorial about memorials to historical figures who committed abhorrent acts in the name of science. The editorial was damaging to people of colour and minority groups, and the journal apologized for the article’s many faults. That experience exposed systemic problems at Nature that we are working to correct, including the lack of diversity among our editors and a failure to acknowledge the journal’s role in racism. The editorial you are reading is part of our attempt to acknowledge and learn from our troubled deep and recent past, understand the roots of injustice and work to address them as we aim to make the scientific enterprise open and welcoming to all.

So Nature has hung this big editorial sign around its neck, and promises to do better. But it’s already doing better, as are all science journals and science departments.  The question I am asking, I guess, is given that morality is improving over time, and has come a long way in the last hundred years, to what extent do we need to apologize for what was said by our predecessors? Yes, it’s fair to point out that bad things were done in the past, but how instructive is that since everyone now knows that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry are wrong? And if they don’t, Nature’s apology won’t fix them

In the end, I see the Nature piece not as wholly performative, but nearly performative, since they are already policing themselves.

Matthew has a different take, as given in these tweets. He’s concerned with the fact that Nature, in going to an open-access policy, is now charging authors huge amounts of money merely to publish their articles. In other words, the journal may not be sexist or racist, but they are still money-gouging capitalists who impoverish scientific investigators.

This is from Nature’s 2020 announcement that it was going “open access”:

Publisher Springer Nature has announced how scientists can make their papers in its most selective titles free to read as soon as they are published — part of a long-awaited move to offer open-access publishing in the Nature family of journals.

From 2021, the publisher will charge €9,500, US$11,390 or £8,290 to make a paper open access (OA) in Nature and 32 other journals that currently keep most of their articles behind paywalls and are financed by subscriptions. It is also trialling a scheme that would halve that price for some journals, under a common-review system that might guide papers to a number of titles.

Soon you won’t have the option of paying: you will have to pay to have your articles published. This money will soon be coming out of the pockets of investigators—either out of their grants (funded by taxpayers) or out of their own pockets. And, as Matthew said, this policy is against the policy of diversity and openness favored by the journal, as it penalizes scientists with the least funding, more likely to be people of color or peoople from lower socioeconomic classes that could use their grants to do research instead of pay a journal exorbitant fees to publish their work.

In comment #3 below, Lysander calls our attention to the financial results of open-access publishing, embodied in this video:

New Scientist calls for curbs on “free speech” in America

September 19, 2022 • 9:30 am

One would think from the tenor of this piece in New Scientist that author Annalee Newitz was not an American and didn’t understand how free speech works in the U.S. But she is an American—born in California—and writes science fiction as well as science and tech journalism, including a regular column in New Scientist.  Now this isn’t my favorite publication—not since its famous and misguided “Darwin Was Wrong” cover and article—and this comment, which has nothing to do with science, is equally misguided. (See here and here on that execrable cover.)

You can read it for free, though you may have to sign up with your email and a password. Click on the screenshot:

Newitz does understand one thing: that the “freedom of speech” guaranteed by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees only that the government can neither censor nor compel speech. This applies to all arms of the government, including public schools and universities—but not to corporations or private groups.  Further, that speech isn’t “free” in the sense of being “unlimited”: the courts have, over the years, carved out exceptions in which the government can censor speech. These include (you should know these by now), false advertising, defamation, speech that is likely to and intended to instigate immediate violence, speech that creates harassment in the workplace, child pornography, threats, and so on.

Nevertheless, I and many others favor extending the First-Amendment type of speech (excepting the already-mentioned exceptions) to nearly all venues, including social media.  The rationale for this was, of course, most famously set out in Chapter 2 John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an essay that you should read (it’s free here).  Mill’s most famous reason was the notion that from the clash of competing ideas would emerge the truth, and that free speech was the only principle that could offer that promise. A quote:

It still remains to speak of one of the principal causes which make diversity of opinion advantageous, and will continue to do so until mankind shall have entered a stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance. We have hitherto considered only two possibilities: that the received opinion may be false, and some other opinion, consequently, true; or that, the received opinion being true, a conflict with the opposite error is essential to a clear apprehension and deep feeling of its truth. But there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part.

Of course free speech doesn’t always lead to the truth, but show me a better system! It surely works in science, where the clash of competing ideas, without much restriction (you can’t call other scientists names in published papers), has led to the understanding of the Universe called “scientific truth”. That truth is not absolute, of course, but what we call the “scientific method” is the best way to approach it.

But there are other reasons for free speech.  It outs those who have odious ideas; enables you, even if you disagree, to sharpen your own arguments and examine your views; confers a certain freedom of thought as well, and so on. That is why, I think, social media should observe as far as it can the First Amendment’s freeoms and restrictions.  So should all universities, whose goal is (supposedly) seeking and promulgating the truth. That’s why 87 American colleges and universities, many of them private, have signed on to the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, our own speech “code” that is basically the First Amendment promulgated t a private university.

But I digress. What Newitz argues for in her piece is restrictions on the kind of speech can cause “chaos”, offense, and harm to society. American free speech is, she argues, the very antithesis of a way to arrive at the truth.

She begins by mocking Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter on the grounds that it would promote free speech. Now I don’t know if this was Musk’s real reason, and have no dog in the fight about his taking over the company, which in the end probably won’t happen. But she argues that the kind of free speech Musk calls for is a “myth”. It isn’t: it’s just that Newitz doesn’t like the consequences. And so she argues for “controlled” free speech (emphasis at the end of her quote below is mine):

When Musk and other Silicon Valley media entrepreneurs talk about free speech, then, they aren’t talking about the reality of US laws. They are talking about a myth – the myth that everyone in the US is a rugged individual, dependent on no one, and we should be allowed to say whatever we want to whomever we want.

Politicians should be allowed to say that fair elections were “rigged”. Racists should be allowed to blame Jewish people for chemtrails. If people in the US say something bad or hurtful, the myth goes, the solution is more speech, not moderation in what we say.

Ironically, this mythical form of “free speech” actually functions as a new form of social control. As media researcher and journalist Peter Pomerantsev points out in his book This Is Not Propaganda, the cold war generation fought for unfettered expression as a solution to censorship. More information was supposed to mean more freedom.

But then, in the 21st century, a new crop of anti-democratic politicians figured out that more information can actually work as a form of “mass persuasion run amok” on social media. Speech begets more speech, until the whole internet is an infinite doomscroll.

Instead of being set free, our minds are being contained by a flood of meaninglessly cruel poop emojis.

Ordinary citizens trying to understand the world on social media are overwhelmed with negative messages. We witness vicious, polarised debates and we watch helplessly as mobs of trolls descend on anyone who is deemed unsavoury.

When free speech metastasises into chaos speech, we no longer know what is true or false. We don’t trust each other. And productive debates in the public sphere become impossible.

It turns out that information overload is just as toxic to democracy as censorship is. We need to chuck out the US myth that bad speech can be “cured” with more speech. Without moderation, ground rules for debate and thoughtful regulation in our digital public squares, it is impossible for us to reach agreement on anything.

There is a vast and pleasant country between total censorship and total information chaos, and that is where I hope to live one day. I’ll save you a seat.

Here she argues that First-Amendment style speech (and not just on social media) can cause chaos, harm, racism, “social control”, cruelty and “offense”. What she want is in bold above— moderators, also known as censors.

And there, of course, is the rub.  Newitz wants “moderation”, but who is to be the moderator? (This trenchant question is the subject of Hitchens’s famous debate argument for free speech.) Note that Newitz doesn’t single out social media, but indicts “anti-democratic politicians” (i.e., Trump and his like), and non-politicians who spread “negative messages”, as well as “trolls.”

And as for “free speech” being a “new form of social control”, I have no idea what she’s talking about. Control by Twitter? But think of all the people, previously silent, who are now speaking up. Control, my tuchas! People previously without a voice in America now have one—and it’s largely the result of social media. I don’t agree with a lot of what they say, of course, but that’s just the point.

So I ask this obvious question to Ms. Newitz:

“Who, do you propose, should censor the speech of “anti-democratic politicians,” trolls, promoters of offense and hate, confusing messages (presumably false information about Covid and the like), and others. Do you nominate yourself? Or would you prefer a Department of Censorship.  And how will you silence the likes of Trump?”

I’m looking forward to Newitz, in a future column, describing how she would arrange things to turn America into the “vast and pleasant country” she craves.  How, exactly, will she arrange the suppression of speech that she finds cruel, vicious, chaotic, and trollish?

Free speech isn’t a myth, but if censorious folk like Newitz get their way, it will become one.

 

h/t: Mark

Scientific American dedicates itself to politics, not science; refuses to publish rebuttals of their false or misleading claims

August 21, 2022 • 10:30 am

On August 14, I received a conciliatory email from Laura Helmuth, editor of Scientific American. As you know if you’re a regular here, I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing their woke coverage and editorials, which make all kinds of accusations that don’t hold water (see emails below for some examples, or you can access all my posts here).

My critiques of the magazine have been similar to those of Michael Shermer, who wrote a regular column for Scientific American for eighteen years. After he turned out a couple of columns that weren’t woke enough for the journal, and were rejected, he was given his walking papers. Michael documented the decline and fall of the journal in two Substack pieces, “Scientific American goes woke” and “What is woke, anyway? A coda to my column on ‘Scientific American goes woke’.” His columns, particularly the first, cite and link to a number of ludicrous pieces published in the journal. I’ll give some of those links below.

At any rate, since I told Laura in my response that I’d keep her initial email confidential. I’ll just characterize what she said in a few words. She was kind enough to be conciliatory, though she noted that I was unhappy with some of her coverage. She praised my criticisms of theocracy and emphasized that, politically, she and I were on the same side with respect to matters of reason and social justice. Finally she urged me to contact her to discuss any ideas I had for stories or my own pieces for the magazine.

It was a polite email, but the last bit—the invitation—prompted me to respond in this way, by suggesting that I write my own op-ed:

From: Jerry Coyne To:Subject: Re: Greetings from Scientific American

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your conciliatory message, which I appreciate. I’m sorry that I have had to go after some of your stories sometimes, but I’m truly puzzled at the direction the magazine is taking. One blatant example was that editorial by McLemore that accused not only Darwin of racism, but also Mendel!  Seriously, how did that get through the editorial process? Is there no fact-checking? Likewise, nobody bothered to look up what SETI is really doing when it tries to find life on other planets. One look at the photos that Carl Sagan included on the Voyager record shows that he was emphasizing the diversity of life on earth, both human and nonhuman.  What bothers me, and you surely know this, is the magazine’s Pecksniffian tendency to call out racism in everything, most recently the SETI program.

Yes, we are indeed both liberals and against the theocratic strain that’s taking over American life.  But if you must be political (I don’t think science magazines should be, of course), why not commission pieces about the stuff you mention below and leave out the authoritarian progressivism and pervasive accusations of racism? In my view, that not only doesn’t do anything to ameliorate racism (how does falsely accusing Mendel of racism do anything for minorities?), but also dims the patina of class that the magazine had.

Of course I had to say this, but you know this already because I’ve written about this stuff a fair amount.

I do appreciate your reaching out, and of course will keep your email confidential, but would you consider an op-ed about how extreme Leftist progressivism is besmirching science itself by distorting the truth? (Example: arguments that sex is not bimodal in humans, but forms a continuum.) I could make a number of arguments like that about biology that, contra McLemore, have truth behind them.

If you’re really interested in presenting a diversity of views on science and politics in your op-eds, I’d be glad to write something like that (and no, it would not be shrill).

Thanks for writing.

Best,Jerry

The correspondence continued, with Laura emailing me to explain the political leanings of the journal, which in my view were not concerned in science but with social justice. And of course she rejected my offer to contribute an article to the magazine because it didn’t comport with those leanings. Such a letter would be “kicking down” (i.e., “punching down”).  I won’t reproduce her second letter even though, in my response, I didn’t say I would keep it confidential. But I will characterize her words in my response—and quote a few of them—in the email I wrote her this morning. Here it is. I’ve added links to the Sci. Am. articles that I mention or to my discussion of them (each of my posts links to the orginal Sci. Am. piece). I’ve corrected a few of my  errors of spelling and punctuation.

Sun 8/21/2022 6:14 AM

Dear Laura,

I of course expected that you would accept editorials only from the “progressive left” point of view, even though, as you noted, we’re both on the Left. That is your editorial call, but I disagree with it.  When “progressives” are engaged in attacking science with lies or distortions (i.e., claiming there’s a spectrum of sex, not gender, in humans, or that Mendel was a racist), I would think that Scientific American would publish, indeed, want, some kind of corrective. Seriously, you let one your writers accuse Mendel, Darwin, and E. O. Wilson of being racist, and SETI of being likewise and that denial of evolution is white supremacy; and yet you refuse to publish rebuttals of that calumny because to oppose those ridiculous accusations would “feel like kicking down.”  Do you really think that someone not as famous as Mendel is allowed to call him a racist because to deny that would be “kicking down.”

Frankly, I find that response disingenuous. Sticking up for correct science in the face of ideological distortion is not “kicking down”: that phrase—or its alternative “punching down”—is used by every ideologue to immunize their ideas from criticism. Science is supposed to be a debate in search of truth, with nobody barred from criticizing anyone, but yet you are placing much of that debate out of bounds because it’s “kicking down”!

The telling part of your email is at the end when you assert that science isn’t really a target of your editorials, but politics is, and the “targets” you say the magazine has chosen include “the Supreme Court endorsed forced pregnancy, Florida is denying care to trans people, white nationalists are infiltrating every branch of government, and anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists are causing people to die. . . . . But with limited resources, those are the sorts of issues we’re focused on in our opinion coverage.” But when is it the editorial policy of Scientific American to address those issues at all? Given its title, I thought your magazine was about science, even in its opinions, and not a program for enacting a brand of social justice that has either little or nothing to do with science. There are literally hundreds of magazines, websites, blogs, podcasts, and other media sources that cover those issues endlessly 24/7 from left, right, and center.

SciAm readers go to your site to get straight science, not political commentary, and deciding that the “progressive” (i.e., extreme) Left has the correct positions on these issues is to essentially alienate over half the country, including moderate liberals like me being turned off by this risible political posturing.

Let me speak frankly: some of the editorials I’ve criticized involve lying or distorting the truth for politics. It’s simply not true, for example, that mathematics and other STEM fields are irredeemably racist and misogynistic [see also here], that Darwin and Mendel were racists, that the Jedi in Star Wars are toxically masculine white saviors, that SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is implicitly racist and colonialist, and that denial of evolution is an expression of white supremacy. These assertions are ridiculous, and yet you not only give them space in your magazine, but refuse to publish any opposing opinions. Thus others like Michael Shermer and I have to rebut them on our websites (as you know, Shermer wrote a column for Scientific American for eighteen years, but then was fired because he failed to hew to the ideology you’re promoting).

It is your magazine, of course, but I am not alone in being appalled at the direction it’s taken. I can assume only that you have given it that direction. This is a great pity: Americans can get their politics in a million places, but there are few where they can get straight science untainted by ideology.  Scientific American used to be that way, but it isn’t any more.

cheers,Jerry

I’ll note one more thing: Thirty-one biologists, including some very notable ones, wrote a letter to Scientific American pushing back on their article that E. O. Wilson (along with Darwin and Mendel) was a racist. Of course the magazine refused to publish our critique. You can see that letter, the signers, and my take on it here.

What is crystal clear is that Scientific American has decided to take on a social-justice program of a particular stripe—that of the “progressive” or “woke” Left—even if the politics the journal espouses have nothing to do with science. Not only that, but they refuse to publish any pushback or criticism of some of their crazier assertions. (Show me where Mendel was a racist, for instance!) It’s very odd that what was once America’s premier science magazine not only has taken up woke cudgels, but is stifling criticism of what they publish. In this way Scientific American can act as if there’s no opposition to the politics they cram down the throats of curious people who just want to read about science. They are censorious, and certain they’re right. Such views have repeatedly stifled and misguided science over the years, right up to the time of Lysenko.

And that is why I’m writing this post.

_________________

About Sci Am’s refusal to let me write; sent by a friend:

It would be so easy to just let you have your say in the magazine and then whenever so accused of bias they could say “we published Jerry Coyne’s rebuttal!” And could hold their heads high for at least offering some balance, but they obviously can’t even bring themselves to do that! It’s all so unnecessary, but if they feel it is necessary (to do their share of social justice) then at least let the other side speak.

 

Scientific American finds the search for extraterrestrial intelligence racist and colonialist

August 12, 2022 • 9:30 am

UPDATE:  Michael Shermer emailed me with his response to this quote below, taken from the Sci. Am. Piece.

We may not be able to recognize intelligence when we see it, and we may not respect or honor things we don’t perceive to be intelligent. That is what we did in many colonial interactions. Certain countries in Europe made “first contact” with Indigenous peoples, perceived them to be nonintelligent and therefore not worthy of life, not worthy of respect or dignity. And that is troubling to me. What’s going to be different next time?

Michael’s response:

The difference is 500 years of moral progress! There are exactly zero people in SETI who think Intelligence is restricted to what we think and do and that any ETIs who show intelligence different from ours should be thought of as inferior and therefore subject to genocide and enslavement. Literally 0!

And there have been debates and discussions on the nature of intelligence for over half a century in SETI communities, with everyone breaking their skulls trying to think of ways that ETIs might communicate, think, act, etc. (From Sagan’s Jupiter cloud creatures to Fred Hoyle’s interstellar dust cloud computing beings, absolutely no one in this community thinks that intelligence is defined by what we do.) This article is so ignorant of the SETI community and the vast literate it has produced. In any case, at this point, SETI scientists would be happy to find ANYTHING that was not random noise, much less tapping out prime numbers (oops, those are the culturally constructed Western colonial mathematics, right?)

And he added a tweet with an antiracist take on extraterrestrial life by—of all people—Carl Sagan:

Note that Shermer himself wrote a piece called “Scientific American goes woke” that I highlighted here.

***********************************************

I claim that there is no practice, institution, or object that can’t be “wokeified” these days. If pumpkin lattes, yogurt, glaciology, and Pilates can be turned into a subject for Woke beefing, then anything can.

This time it’s the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), popularized and brought to life by Carl Sagan, whose eponymous institute at Cornell, along with the SETI Institute, have, using a variety of instruments, scoured the skies looking for evidence of life on other worlds.

As you know, we haven’t found evidence of such life, but of course there are gazillions of planets that could support life, most of them light years away.  The lack of any signal of life could reflect any number of causes: we’re truly alone in the Universe (I consider that unlikely), other planets with life may not be sending out signals, or it’s nearly impossible to detect any signals. But according to this new article in Scientific American, our failure is partly our own fault: we’re doing the search wrong. And we’re doing it wrong because we’re colonialists and racists.

In this piece, Scientific American author Camilio Garzón (it’s an article, not an op-ed) interviews Rebecca Charbonneau, identified as “a historian in residence at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as well as a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.”

Charbonneau’s thesis:

. . . .increasingly, SETI scientists are grappling with the disquieting notion that, much like their intellectual forebears, their search may somehow be undermined by biases they only dimly perceive—biases that could, for instance, be related to the misunderstanding and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups that occurred during the development of modern astronomy and many other scientific fields.

Yep, Scientific American is rapidly descending to the status of a risible, woke, and useless publication. I used to read it avidly when I was a kid, but back then it was full of science. Now, like Teen Vogue, it’s a disguised way to propagandize its readers.

Yes, I could hear your kishkes tighten up when you read Charbonneau’s thesis above, but there’s a lot more. Click below to read for free—and that’s all it’s worth.

Charbonneau sees space exploration not just as a manifestation of scientific and intellectual curiosity, but largely as “an extension of our imperialist and colonial histories.” That manifests itself in several ways: not just in plans to colonize other planets (where there’s no life to dominate!), but mainly in the very way we go about detecting life in the Universe—through SETI.  She adds: “And SETI in particular carries a lot of intellectual, colonial baggage as well, especially in its use of abstract concepts like ‘civilization’ and ‘intelligence,’ concepts that have been used to enact real, physical harm on Earth.”

Her thesis, then, is SETI is not propping up the harms of colonialism on Earth using racist and colonialist methods involving things like “civilization” and “intelligence”.  Since “intelligence and “civilization” are colonialist ways to assess intelligence, what are we to do in our search for extraterrestrial life.

Garzón’s questions are in bold, Charbonneau’s answers in indented Roman type.

If decolonization isn’t just a metaphor but rather a process, that implies it’s about reckoning with history and striving to fix past mistakes. That’s something easy to say but much harder to actually define, let alone to do. In the context of SETI, what might decolonization’s “reckoning” look like?

It’s a great question. Ultimately, in Tuck and Yang’s interpretation of decolonization, this would look like prioritizing the sovereignty of Indigenous cultures and respecting their wishes regarding settled scientific infrastructure. And while that is critically important, we shouldn’t entirely discount the symbolic, dare I say metaphorical, nature of colonialism at play in SETI. Fundamentally, SETI concerns listening to alien civilizations, ideally, but we also have to get better at listening to Earthlings! We’re not very good at that right now, but we’re starting to move in that direction. There are members of the SETI community, myself included, who are very interested in listening to marginalized and historically excluded perspectives.

A lot of SETI scientists start their research from the technical search perspective, without deeply considering the implications and impact of their listening. They are simply interested in finding evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, which is valuable. I think that to do that, however, without thinking critically about how we conceptualize big abstract ideas, such as “intelligence” and “civilization,” and without considering the ethics of the search and its cultural implications, would be a huge mistake. These ideas are tightly bound with the histories of racism, genocide and imperialism, and to use them haphazardly can be harmful. How we use these symbols of the past when thinking about alien civilizations also says a lot about how we view Earth’s civilizations, and this is where Indigenous Studies scholars, such as those who contributed to the special SETI issue of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, can make great contributions. They have a unique perspective on the impact of contact, and how concepts like “intelligence” can be weaponized.

The last paragraph of Charbonneau’s answer is blather, just another attempt at self-flagellation for our treatment (admittedly very bad in the past) of remote cultures. So she manages to drag in genocide, imperialism, racism, and indigenous studies, which really have nothing to do with the way SETI scholars go about finding life on other planets. And she totally ignores the years and years that SETI scientists have pondered ways to communicate with extraterrestrial life, and how they might communicate with us (see below).

Charbonneau does not explain clearly how listening to “marginalized and historically excluded perspectives,” listening that, by the way. is going on all the time these days, is going to help us communicate with other planets. Is it not sufficient to say that “we’re all human and share certain characteristics”? That, after all was the subject of Sagan’s “golden record” sent on Voyager spacecaft.  As the Planetary Society describes it:

On board each Voyager spacecraft is a time capsule: a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disk carrying spoken greetings in 55 languages from Earth’s peoples, along with 115 images and myriad sounds representing our home planet. Selected for NASA by Carl Sagan and others, and produced by science writer Timothy Ferris, the disks are essentially a “greatest hits” package portraying the biodiversity of Earth and the diversity of human cultures. From the Golden Gate to the Great Wall, Beethoven to Chuck Berry, from mountain breezes to crashing surf, a dog’s howl and a baby’s cry, the disks may someday serve as “letters of introduction” to a passing extraterrestrial civilization that may stop and inspect the robots and become inquisitive about their place of origin.

Is this colonialist? Greetings in 55 languages, showing the diversity of speech, and 115 images, which are a combination of scientific stuff and pictures of people from all over the planet.  After all, the images are not meant just to show what life on Earth looks like and how we live, but how far we’ve advanced technically—useful information for an extraterrestrial civilization.

Here’s the record:

But wait! There’s more!

It does feel ironic. SETI is built around listening for something out there but perhaps at the cost of ignoring much of what is right here on this planet. For instance, you’ve repeatedly mentioned the cultural implications of terms such as “intelligence” and “civilization,” but how about the word “alien,” too? All of these terms have very different connotations—even destructive ones—as historically applied to Indigenous peoples or, for that matter, as applied to all the other sentient beings that live on Earth. Even now some people don’t consider nonhuman animals to be sentient, let alone possessing any real intelligence. And throughout history, building empires has come at the cost of discounting and dehumanizing Indigenous peoples as lesser beings, incapable of sophisticated thought and societal organization. Yet “intelligence” is right there in SETI’s name. Should we reconsider that framing?

SETI is designed to listen outward, but as you said, it’s not always so great at listening inward. And I should preface this by saying that there are members of the SETI community who are very interested in doing this work. And oftentimes these missteps are not made consciously—we’re all operating within our own cultural frameworks. And so, of course, when we are thinking about the “other,” the imagined alien, we’re going to project our own understanding of what that looks like onto this blank slate. In fact, some people even call SETI a mirror. Jill Tarter, an eminent SETI scientist, famously referred to SETI as holding up a cosmic mirror, where we’re looking for the “other,” but in the process of doing that, we are really learning about ourselves.

As for “intelligence,” that’s certainly a dangerous word, and it has been used in very harmful ways. Eugenics, for example, used the limited concept of “intelligence” to justify genocide. I’m therefore sometimes troubled by the word intelligence in SETI. For one thing, we might not even be able to identify what intelligence is. And because of this, maybe we [will] someday make contact and [won’t] even recognize that we’ve done so. But it’s also important to think very critically about why we search for intelligence. Is there something special about intelligence? Does intelligence deserve more respect than whatever we might perceive to be nonintelligence? We might perceive microbes as nonintelligent life, for example. Does that life have a right to exist without us bothering it? Or is it just germs—just bugs that we are going to just bring back and study and pick apart?

Oh for crying out loud, OF COURSE there’s something special about intelligence! Are there forms of it that far surpass ours? What forms can it take? We are also interested in animal intelligence for the same reason.

I’ve put Charbonneaus’s money quote in italics below:

We may not be able to recognize intelligence when we see it, and we may not respect or honor things we don’t perceive to be intelligent. That is what we did in many colonial interactions. Certain countries in Europe made “first contact” with Indigenous peoples, perceived them to be nonintelligent and therefore not worthy of life, not worthy of respect or dignity. And that is troubling to me. What’s going to be different next time?

I don’t think Charbonneau knows how SETI works. They are of course looking for signs of technological development, like radio signals or deliberate attempts to communicate, but is that colonialist? Further, SETI also uses astronomy, telescopes, and so on. Those don’t really depend on intelligence: they could, in principle, detect signs of life produced by organisms that don’t have “intelligence” in the human sense. The fact is that SETI scientists have spent decades thinking about how extraterrestrial civilizations might communicate, and designing their endeavors around these ways.

If there’s another way to detect extraterrestrial life beyond these, I’d like to know. Charbonneau certainly doesn’t tell us, nor does she seem to care. She cares more about chastising us for bad acts of the past and showing how virtuous she is.

Let me push back on one aspect here, though. Might there be a degree of incompatibility between openness to other ways of being and SETI’s core tenets? After all, SETI—all of astronomy, really—is built on the assumption of universality, that the laws of physics are the same throughout the observable universe regardless of one’s social constructs. A radio telescope, for instance, will work the same way whether it’s here on Earth or somewhere on the other side of the cosmos. Regardless of context, certain shared fundamentals exist to allow common, predictable, understandable outcomes. SETI takes this conceit even further by elevating mathematics as a universal language that can be understood and translated anywhere and by anyone. What are your thoughts on this?

So let me preface this by saying I am not a mathematician. But I do write about math. And there are many anthropologists who study mathematical systems in different cultures. They see that, even on Earth, among human cultures, there are different ways of thinking about math. And while mathematics is the language we use on Earth in our hegemonic culture to describe what we are seeing, we don’t know that another species will use that same language to describe what they are seeing. So while I don’t want to discount universality, I do think any assumptions about this are perhaps optimistic, to put it kindly. The core of what I’m trying to say is that we must critically interrogate our assumptions about life and universality, because we will all too often find that they say more about us than aliens.

So, Dr. Charbonneau, given that other creatures won’t understand the kind of math used by Earthlings, what about just regular pulses of radio waves that can’t have a purely physical origin? And once again, Charbonneau, ignoring those mathematicians that think that math is an “objective truth” (I have no dog in that fight), fails to tell us how our colonialist fixation with Earth math will impede us from finding other cultures. “Interrogating our assumptions” won’t help us one whit.

I don’t know what’s happened to Scientific American, but it’s full of stuff like this; I’ve written about it often (see here). Actually, I do know: under the aegis of editor Laura Helmuth, the magazine has gone woke—big time.

h/t: John

Lots more debunking of the Turban et al. study on gender dysphoria

August 6, 2022 • 11:30 am

On Thursday I wrote a post about a new paper in the journal Pediatrics by Jack Turban et al., a paper arguing against “rapid onset gender dysphoria” in adolescents and the attendant view that transgender identity is often spread by “social contagion”.  Turban et al. argued that the ROGD hypothesis—and social-contagion views of all gender dysphoria—were disproven because he found that, in a sample of adolescents from two years (2017 and 2019):

a. More males than females claimed to identify as transgender, whereas ROGD supposedly predicts the opposite.

b. There was no increase in the number or proportion of adolescents from 2017 to 2019 identifying as transgender, again supposedly contradicting the social contagion view

c. A higher proportion of transgender adolescents than cisgender adolescents reported having been bullied, which Turban et al. says is evidence against a “social contagion” hypothesis, for why would you assume a gender identity that would get you bullied?

d. A higher proportion of transgender adolescents than cisgender adolescents report attempting suicide. Turban et al. claims this is also evidence against a social contagion hypothesis, though I don’t see how.

I pointed out problems with all four of these claims, and now, it turns out, people with more knowledge than I have raised these same issues with the paper of Turban et al. (Turban seems to be a tendentious researcher who, says Singal below, has a tendency to misquote even his own data, and is on a single-minded drive to support “gender affirmative” treatment.)

There are three pieces to read, and I’ve read the first two below. You can access all three by clicking on the links. The first was published on Singal’s Substack site, the second at the City Journal, and the third is on SocArXiv Papers

The pdf of the note below can be downloaded here.

I was heartened that the authors found the same issues I singled out as problematic, but also found other issues as well. That’s not surprising, for, as a group, these authors have far more knowledge than I about the rise in transgender identification among adolescents and children—particularly Singal, who has spent much of his recent career minutely and critically examining papers about gender dysphoria.

All three of these papers take strong issue with the paper of Turban et al. (Pediatrics is published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which, Sapir maintains, has a history of pushing gender-affirmative care, to the point of rejecting outright any papers that question it. One is mentioned below) The main issues raised by Singal and Sapir are similar to those I mentioned, and I’ll summarize them briefly.

1.) Asking children “what is your sex?” conflates biological sex, which is what we want to know, with what sex the interviewee sees themselves to be. If there is a difference, and Singal says there almost surely is, then this could underrepresent either the two groups AMAB (“assigned male at birth”) and AFAB (“assigned female at birth”). Indeed, there is some evidence that AFABs identify themselves as males, counter to Turban’s claim that it’s mostly biological males afflicted with gender dysphoria.

That information comes from Michael Biggs, who, says Singal, submitted what’s below as part of a critical comment on the Turban et al. paper, but the comment was rejected by Pediatrics within an hour of submission.  How could it have been properly reviewed.

Biggs:

Predicting height separately for each sex, OLS regression (adjusting for age and race) reveals that transgender respondents who identified as male were on average 2.5 cm shorter than non-transgender male respondents (95% CI: 1.3 … 3.8 cm, total n = 87,568). (There was no discernible height difference between transgender respondents who identified as female and non-transgender female respondents.) This height difference is evidence that some of the transgender respondents who identified themselves as male were natal females.

Singal’s gloss:

This means that if biological sex had been reported accurately, a number of members of the “male” category would instead be in the “female” category, which would nudge everything in exactly the direction that is unfriendly to Turban’s and his colleagues’ theory (that’s if you accept their logic).

For my part, I don’t see why the claim that observing more biological females than males afflicted by gender dysphoria needs to be part of a ROGD “hypothesis”. It could be the other way around, though clinical data (see below) suggests that it isn’t.  But a sex imbalance says nothing about social contagion. A hypothesis should not include in its assumptions what has already been observed.

2.) Turban’s claim that there are data showing that asking “what is your sex?” gives reliable information about biological sex is not supported by other studies. (I didn’t mention this issue, as I didn’t know about it, but Singal did. He looked up the three studies cited by Turban et al. as showing his method of asking about sex is reliable in pinpointing sex assigned at birth, and none of the three studies cited addressed that claim.  If this is the case, then Turban et al. are guilty of severe distortion of the literature.

3.) Turban et al.’s claim that gender dysphoria is on the wane is contradicted by multiple sets of data from multiple countries. These data are from clinical studies in which young people present themselves for treatment, so there are two explanations. First, more females than males suffer from gender dysphoria of a severe fashion—severe enough to go to a clinic. That would explain why the female bias seen everywhere in clinics conflicts with what Turban found, which is a survey on self-identification of high school students. Second, Turban could simply be using unrepresentative data.

We don’t know the answer to this, but it’s a flaw in the Turban et al. paper that they don’t really discuss this disparity (they give two citations to clinical data but then criticize them). But it’s the clinical data that are important, as I said, because people fighting for empathic rather than affirmative care are concerned not so much with what gender adolescents feel themselves to be as with whether they’re driven to take medical steps that may be harmful and irreversible. And those are the young people who go to clinics.

4.) Singal notes that Turban et al.’s study has sampling problems, and this issue is discussed in the last paper above, which I haven’t yet read.

5.) That children who identify as transgender report a higher rate of bullying does not refute the “social contagion” hypothesis. As several authors have pointed out (Singal at length), children with gender dysphoria tend to suffer from mental issues, and could be bullied because of that—or simply because their gender confusion makes them ripe for bullying. If these children then tend to seek like-minded people as a way of escaping from the bullying, then you get the correlation that is observed by Turban et al. Singal uses the example of bullied “goth adolescents, as “gothism” doesn’t have anything to do with biology or gender, but the point is clear. A correlation between identifying as transgender and being bullied says nothing about the absence of social contagion, and may well support it.

As for increased rates of suicide among youth identifying as transgender, that could have the same explanation as above: dysphoria is connected with mental distress and mental illness. Rates of attempted suicide say nothing to me about social contagion.

Singal in particular has followed Jack Turban’s papers and statements (including on Twitter) for a long time, and his paper is a litany of a scientist who seems tendentious and, well, dishonest about the data in the interests of ideology.

I’ll end with Sapir’s conclusion:

In a field known for its weak methodologies and even weaker scientific conclusions, Turban’s study sets a new low. Even trans activists in the academy who detest the ROGD hypothesis wrote a letter in which they take Turban to task [JAC: that’s the third screenshot above]. While the Turban study’s intentions are “admirable,” these authors write, its “results were overinterpreted and . . . the theoretical and methodological shortcomings of the article run the risk of being more harmful than supportive.”

That a study like this can pass the peer-review process unscathed, especially at a time when European countries are shutting down or putting severe restrictions on pediatric transition, is a sorry statement about the quality of knowledge gatekeeping in the medical research community. American journalists tout its findings without giving readers relevant information about its flaws, while left-of-center journalists in Britain have been busy blowing the whistle on the pediatric gender-medicine scandal. The U.S. has a long way to go to bring medical practice in line with scientific knowledge and common sense.

Note that the NBC News story I originally cited was completely uncritical, and I gather that other media outlets have parroted Turban et al. without the slightest notice of its flaws. That could reflect ideological bias, or simply arrant ignorance of how to vet a scientific finding.

_________________

h/t: A lot of readers who directed me to these sources. Thanks!

Scientists abjure “woman” in favor of “birthing persons” and “pregnant persons”

July 7, 2022 • 11:45 am

In April, the Washington Post publicized its desire to adopt more “gender-neutral language”, citing the paper’s earlier pubication of “A guide to the words we use in our gender coverage“. That guide sets out how the paper will use a panoply of words related to gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on. Nowhere in that article is there a guide showing how to use the words “man” or “woman”. Women are mentioned only in these two entries:

Transgender describes someone whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth (this can also be shortened to “trans”). For example, a transgender woman is someone who was listed as male at birth but whose gender identity is female.

Nonbinary is a term used by people whose experience of gender identity and gender expression do not align neatly as either “man” or “woman,” the two categories Western countries have generally used to classify gender.

Note the present perfect tense: “Western countries have generally used“, implying that that time is past. 

Now, scientific journals and societies, in a race to determine who can display the most virtue (euphemistically described as “becoming inclusive”) are deep-sixing the term “woman” as well. You can see this in the following Science article, which is actually not bad, about how the Dobbs case, and the end of national Roe v Wade legislation, will affect science . Click to read

Many of the points the article makes are good ones. Will women scientists boycott states that don’t allow abortions, or not have meetings there? Will women scientists consider taking jobs in such states? Will pregnant women scientists go to conferences in states where, if something goes amiss, they can’t get good medical care? These are questions that women scientists should ponder, and I already have one colleague who says she will never even go to a state like Texas or Mississippi that bans abortions.

(One idea just crossed my mind: will women scientists also boycott meetings in countries that have strict anti-abortion laws. For compared to a fair number of countries, even in Europe, many U.S. states have more liberal abortion laws).

But I digress. These issues, of course, aren’t unique to science, but scientists do have a tendency to go to professional gatherings, and these things must be considered.

No, the article is fine, but we can see scientists using Post-ian “inclusive” language. First of all, the article itself does not contain the word “woman” except in two quotes from women scientists, one of which uses “woman” in conjunction with another term (my emphasis)

The Supreme Court’s reversal will likely be felt most strongly in groups that are already underrepresented in science, says Nicole Williams, the outreach director for the nonprofit 500 Women Scientists. “Being an African-American woman, and just knowing the stats—that Black birthing persons already experience high levels of pregnancy-related mortality—the overturning of Roe versus Wade is a death sentence for Black women scientists and birthing persons.

I wasn’t quite sure what the last sentence meant: whether “Black women scientists and birthing persons” referred only to black women, both scientists and pregnant ones, or intended the term “birthing persons” to be only non-black pregnant women. But I think it’s the former: Williams is talking about problems that hit black women harder. But “birthing persons”? Nope. And I wonder what Williams means when she calls herself an “African-American woman”. Isn’t she an “African-American birthing person”? And shouldn’t the organization be “500 Birthing People Scientists”?

I’m only partly joking; as I note below, this purging of language really isn’t inclusive, for it erases a class that has its own identity: biological women. More in a second.

One more change of language at the end, quoting a social scientist who is pregnant and worries about emergency situations as she had a miscarriage:

“As a pregnant person,” Alves says, she wouldn’t feel comfortable attending conferences in locations where, if something went awry, “I couldn’t get medical care that I needed and that reflects my values.”

It’s hard not to imagine that Alves deliberately chose to use “pregnant person” instead of “pregnant woman.”

Well, so what? Language changes, the advocates of inclusivity will say. But remember this eloquent and thoughtful NYT article, which I wrote about recently (click to read):

Read the whole thing; I’ll just give a small bit about so-called inclusivity:

But in a world of chosen gender identities, women as a biological category don’t exist. Some might even call this kind of thing erasure.

. . . Tolerance for one group need not mean intolerance for another. We can respect transgender women without castigating females who point out that biological women still constitute a category of their own — with their own specific needs and prerogatives.

If only women’s voices were routinely welcomed and respected on these issues. But whether Trumpist or traditionalist, fringe left activist or academic ideologue, misogynists from both extremes of the political spectrum relish equally the power to shut women up.

For the Washington Post, Science, and many other media, as well as people themselves, women apparently don’t exist as a biological category.

h/t: Luana

Brian Charlesworth on the errors of a new paper supposedly showing that a fundamental assumption of neo-Darwinian evolution is wrong

May 9, 2022 • 8:00 am

Intro by Jerry:  One of the pillars of neo-Darwinian evolution is the assumption, supported by a great deal of evidence, that mutation is “random.” This does not mean that mutations occur with equal frequency everywhere in the genome (they don’t), that different genes have the same mutation rate (they don’t), or that even within a gene some mutations don’t occur more often than others (they do). Rather, the statement that “mutation is random” means that the likelihood of a mutation occurring does not depend on whether in a given situation it would be advantageous or deleterious.

The idea that mutations are “nonrandom”—usually meaning that adaptive mutations are more likely to occur in some situations (e.g., a change in environment)—has been bruited about for years, mainly because if this was a fairly common phenomenon, it would create a substantial rethinking of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. But there is no way we know of that the frequency of an error in the DNA sequence, which is what a mutation is, can be elevated in the adaptive direction when the environment changes. (We know that environmental changes can raise the overall mutation rate, but this is not an adaptive phenomenon because the vast majority of mutations are harmful.) Because of this lack of evidence for “adaptive mutation,” and the absence of a mechanism whereby it could occur, evolutionists continue to accept that mutations are “random” in the sense I defined.

Recently, a paper appeared that seemed to show that at least one mutation in human hemoglobin—the one causing sickle-cell anemia when present in two copies—could occur more frequently in areas where the mutation is adaptive: malaria-ridden areas of Africa. The sickle-cell mutation, as Brian Charlesworth shows below, is adaptive, but only when present in one copy, when, together in a “heterozygote” with one copy of the “normal” hemoglobin beta chain, it confers substantial protection against malaria.  The heterozygote has higher survival and reproductive fitness than either the homozygote for the ‘normal’ allele, which is more prone to fatal malaria, and the sickle-cell homozygote, which has the disease sickle-cell anemia and is prone to die before adulthood.  The mechanics of population genetics show that if a heterozygote with one copy of each of two alleles has higher reproductive ability (read “survivorship” here) than either of the two homozygotes, it will be maintained in the population at a stable equilibrium frequency, regardless of how bad off the homozygotes are. The sufferings of those with sickle-cell anemia can be seen as the price paid because of the higher malaria resistance of heterozygotes carrying only one copy of the gene. It also shows that evolution doesn’t create the optimum situation: that would be a single mutation that causes malaria resistance when present in either one or two copies.

This, by the way, explains why African-Americans are more prone to sickle-cell anemia than people from other populations, for they still carry the “HbS” mutation prevalent in their ancestors who were brought to America as slaves. The frequency of the HbS mutation in the U.S., however, is now falling, and for two reasons: we don’t have malaria in the U.S., which is necessary to keep the gene at an equilibrium frequency, and because African-Americans have intermarried with whites, who don’t carry copies of HbS.  Eventually, prenatal testing and genetic counseling will be able to eliminate sickle-cell anemia, and the HbS allele, completely.

At any rate, the paper, by Melamed et al. (reference below), appeared to show that the mutation rate from the “normal” DNA sequence to the HbS “sickle-cell” sequence was higher in Africans than in Europeans. This was quickly picked up by the popular press as an example of “adaptive mutation” and as a refutation of modern evolutionary theory. (The “Darwin Was Wrong” trope still sells newspapers, especially in America!) Many readers wrote me and asked me about this paper, which I hadn’t yet read, but I told them that a better analysis was in the works.

I pointed this out to my friend, colleague, and ex-chairman (at Chicago) Brian Charlesworth, one of the world’s premier evolutionary geneticists. He quickly spotted the error in the Melamed et al. paper that refuted its conclusion of “adaptive mutation,” but was too busy to refute it on paper. After I kept hectoring him to write something up since the “Darwin was wrong” trope was associated with this paper in many articles in the popular press, he finally deigned to write a short and sweet refutation. Rather than submit it as a rebuttal to the journal (he said he has two refutations of other papers in press, and doesn’t want to get a reputation as a debunker), Brian allowed me to publish the rebuttal here. I’ve put it between the lines below.

Note that the error in Melamed et al. stems from a flaw in the assumptions: that all the new mutations analyzed were independent.


No evidence for an unusually high mutation rate to an adaptive variant

Brian Charlesworth
Institute of Evolutionary Biology
School of Biological Sciences
The University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, UK

The hemoglobin S variant (HbS) causes the near-lethal sickle cell disease when homozygous (present on both the maternal and paternal chromosomes) and confers protection against malaria when heterozygous (present on either the maternal or paternal chromosome). The HbS variant exists at substantial frequencies in several populations in Africa, as well as in Arabia and India. It is the classic example of heterozygote advantage, whereby a mutation that increases the fitness of its heterozygous carriers cannot replace its alternative because of the loss of fitness to homozygotes. (Note that 2022 is the 100th anniversary of R.A. Fisher’s discovery of how this process works). The HbS mutation is a single change from adenine to thymine at the sixth amino acid position in the beta globin gene, resulting a change in the amino-acid in the corresponding protein for valine to glutamic acid (it was the first mutation to be identified as causing a change in the sequence of a protein). Studies of the DNA sequences of chromosomes carrying the HbS mutation show that there are five major classes of sequences associated with it, but recent analyses show that the mutation probably arose only once, followed by recombination events that placed it onto different genetic backgrounds. This provides a classic example of what is known as a “partial selective sweep”, in which a new mutation with a selective advantage arises on a single genetic background, so that variants present on this background spread through the population in association with it.

Melamed et al. (2021) claim to have evidence that challenges the standard neo-Darwinian view that natural selection acts on mutations that arise “randomly”, i.e., without reference to their effects on the survival or fertility of their carriers (indeed, most mutations with noticeable effects reduce the fitness of their carriers). The evidence for Melamed et al.’s claim comes from an experiment in which the authors applied a novel technique for identifying new mutations in millions of sperm cells. With regard to the detection of HbS mutations, they characterized sperm from 7 African and 4 European men. They observed 9 instances of the HbS mutation in the sperm of Africans and none in the Europeans. They pointed out that HbS is at a selective advantage in Africans but not in Europeans, and suggested that the seemingly higher mutation rate is the result of a hypothetical process proposed by Adia Livnat, a co-author of the paper, whereby “adaptations and mutation-specific rates jointly evolve”. This claim has been disseminated in the media as evidence against the neo-Darwinian view of selection on random mutations [JAC: see below for some of these media references]– here it is claimed that mutations that are selectively advantageous in a particular environment arise more frequently than in environments where they lack an advantage.

However, there is no statistical support for the claim that there is a higher mutation rate to HbS in African men. While the authors looked at very large number of sperm, these came from only 11 individuals. Five of the nine HbS mutations occurred in a single individual, and 2 other individuals contributed 2 mutations each. The events within individuals cannot be treated as independent of each other, because there is a large population of dividing cells that are precursors of the mature sperm. If a mutation occurs in a cell that gives rise to several sperm after a number of divisions, there will be several copies of the mutation in the sperm pool. This is the cause of the well-established fact that the frequencies of mutations in human sperm increase with the man’s age. If we treat each individual as a single observation, we have 3 cases of HbS mutations among 7 Africans and 0 among 4 Europeans. Fisher’s exact test shows that the difference between Africans and Europeans has a probability of about 11% of arising by chance in the absence of any true difference.

There are other reasons for doubting this claim. First, it is exceedingly hard to see how there could be any biological process that could cause the HbS mutation to have a higher mutation rate in order to allow Africans to evolve malaria resistance, which is thought to have become a significant selective factor at most around 20,000 years ago. Mutations arise as errors in the replication of DNA molecules or as the result of damage to non-replicating molecules. There is no known mechanism whereby an organism could devise a process that would allow it to produce one specific class of mutation at a higher-than-average frequency just when that mutation is at an advantage. Further, the genetic evidence referred to above suggests that the HbS variant prevalent in human populations traces its ancestry back to a single ancestral mutation (Shriner and Rotimi, 2018; Laval et al., 2019) , so that there is no reason to believe that a high mutation rate has enabled multiple copies of the mutation to spread.

References

D. Melamed et al. 2022. De novo mutation rates at the single-mutation resolution in a human HBB gene region associated with adaptation and genetic disease. Genome Research 32:1-11.  Free pdf here

D. Shriner and C. N. Rotimi. 2018. Whole-genome-sequence-based haplotypes reveal single origin of the sickle allele during the Holocene wet phase. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 102:547-556.

G. Laval et al. 2019. Recent adaptive acquisition by African rainforest hunter-gatherers of the late Pleistocene sickle-cell mutation suggests past differences in malaria exposure.  Am. J. Hum. Genet. 104:553-561.


Among the many popular articles that cite Melamed et al. as a rebuttal of modern evolutionary theory, see here, here, here, here, here, ad infinitum:

Two examples (click on screenshot)s:

 

And here’s Brian:

 

Pinker vs. the AAAS on the politicization of climate change—and science in general

May 3, 2022 • 11:00 am

The other day Steven Pinker received a form letter from Ann Bostrom, one of the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), asking for money to support action on climate change. (Bostrom is also a professor of environmental policy at the University of Washington.)  The AAAS also publishes Science, one of a handful of the world’s best science journals.

Below is part of Bostrom’s letter (her entire solicitation is below the fold; bolding is hers):

My research career has focused primarily on two important areas: Risk perception, communication, and management; and environmental policy and decision-making.Though these are two distinct areas of study, I see them as two sides of the same coin. If key decisionmakers—like politicians on Capitol Hill—don’t understand the risks of climate change, how likely are they to pass meaningful policies to mitigate those risks? If someone is deeply concerned about climate change, but doesn’t believe the government can effectively address it, how strongly will they support policy action?My personal quest to answer questions like these keeps leading me back to the same conclusion: It is essential that each of us support and uplift science to inform and spur action on climate change.

That’s why this Earth Day, I am asking 300 generous donors to step up and make a tax-deductible gift to the AAAS Flexible Action Fund to support our nearly 175-year-strong mission to build trust in science and fortify key decision-making with evidence. Can I count on you to be one of them?

As you’ll see from his response below, Steve was distressed by the invitation and the AAAS itself. His complaint? That the AAAS is being unscientific and counterproductive in its strategy to enhance scientific literacy and action on climate change. The organization is and has been unscientific in assuming that rejection of science is simply caused by a deficit in knowledge; and it’s been oblivious to empirical data suggesting that this rejection is in fact largely political—a problem the AAAS relentlessly exacerbates with its recent but aggressive left-wing branding. Finally, Steve argues that the organization’s steadfast refusal even to consider alternative explanations to left-wing orthodoxy leaves it proposing what are probably ineffectual solutions to major problems. There is, for example, no mention of nuclear power.

(Steve also reproduces a tendentious and offensive tweet that one of the organization’s former editors issued attacking journalist Jesse Singal and psychologist Paul Bloom. This is just one example of how ideology has permeated the journal.)

Needless to say, Pinker refused to become one of the “generous donors”, and chided the AAAS for politicizing science in its “lurch to the left.” That politicization, he feels—and I agree—is a strong impediment to the objectivity needed to solve any scientific problem. Climate change is one such problem, and its solution is hampered by tribalism.

Steve gave me permission to post his response to Ann Bostrom, which I’ve put below. He also received a short response from Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals, which I also have permission to publish.

First, go below to the fold to read Bostrom’s solicitation, and then read Pinker’s response here (with tweets enclosed). Finally, read Thorp’s tepid response—actually a nonresponse.


Pinker’s response to the solicitation:

Dear Professor Bostrom,

I recently received your solicitation for a donation to the AAAS. I share with you an interest in risk perception and communication, as well as environmental policy, topics which I explore in my recent books Rationality and Enlightenment Now. I also share your concern that politicians on Capitol Hill, and the American public, be aware of the risks of anthropogenic climate change and how they can be reduced.

For precisely these reasons I cannot in good conscience agree to your request to donate money to the AAAS. The Association is currently making these hazards worse, not better.

First, it is astonishing that an association for the advancement of science does not take a scientific approach to public acceptance of scientific conclusions. The letter that went out over your name assumes that the problem is a lack of access to scientific evidence. Yet as I’m sure you’re aware, studies of public opinion by Dan Kahan and others have shown that deniers of the scientific consensus on climate change, evolution, and Covid are no less informed than believers. Presentation of scientific arguments, moreover, does little to change their mind.

The difference is political: the farther someone is to the right, the less they believe the scientists on these hot-button issues. My own experience as a scientific communicator confirms that there is enormous distrust of the scientific and academic establishments, because people believe these establishments have been captured by the political left and that any dissent from orthodoxy will be met with censorship or cancellation.

The solution is obvious. Scientific organizations must cultivate a reputation for objectivity, neutrality, openness to debate, and consideration of evidence for alternative hypotheses. Yet it is precisely in these areas that the AAAS, including Science magazine, have been making the problem worse.

I will give three examples of how the AAAS appears to be going out of its way to alienate any politician or citizen who is not a strong leftist.

  1. Science magazine appears to have adopted wokeism as its official editorial policy and the only kind of opinion that may be expressed in the magazine. An example is the recent special section on the underrepresentation of African Americans among physics majors, graduate students, and faculty members. This situation is lamentable and worthy of understanding. But the six articles in the issue assume as dogma that the underrepresentation is caused by “white privilege”: that “the dominant culture has discouraged diversity,” and “white people use their membership in a dominant group to assert political, cultural, and economic power over those outside that group.” Though Science is ordinarily committed to open debate on scientific controversies, no disagreements with this conspiracy theory were expressed. And though the journal is supposedly committed to empirical tests, no data were presented that might speak to alternative explanations, such as that the cause of the under-representation lies in the pipeline of prepared and interested students. If we want to increase the number of African Americans in physics, it matters a great deal whether we should try to fix the nation’s high schools or accuse physics professors of white supremacy. Yet Science magazine has decided, without debate or data, to advocate the latter.
  2. SciLine, the AAAS resource for journalists touted in your fundraising message, includes a webpage with primers on climate change.  This includes the following articles on energy:

“Wind energy in the United States”

“Biomass energy in the United States”

“Hydropower in the United States”

“Renewable energy in the United States”

“Geothermal energy in the United States”

“Solar energy in the United States”

Notice anything missing? There is nothing on nuclear energy in the United States. This is despite the fact that nuclear energy is currently the carbon-free source that exceeds every one of these alternatives in US energy consumption, and despite the fact that such esteemed climate and energy scientists as James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, and Kerry Emanuel have written that “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power”,

For the AAAS to omit any mention of nuclear power in its resource for journalists on climate change is deeply irresponsible and can only be explained by the fact that nuclear power fell out of fashion among left-wing and Green political factions more than 40 years ago.

  1. Last year, Science’s editor for the behavioral sciences, Tage Rai, posted racist, unsourced, obscenity-laced tweets which libeled an important science journalist (Jesse Singal) and accused a distinguished psychologist (Paul Bloom) of bigotry for interviewing him. (See screenshot below.) This was because they discussed hypotheses about transgender issues that disagree with the tendentious and scientifically dubious orthodoxy. Though Rai has since departed from Science, this kind of communication should not be the public face of this country’s premier journal for science.

As best I can tell, awareness of the hazards of politicization of science among the officers of AAAS and the editors of Science is zero. Certainly the issue has not been broached in its communications or the pages of the magazine. Yet this lurch to the left is distorting their coverage of vital scientific issues such as climate change, and is in danger of alienating the majority of American legislators and citizens who are not hard leftists.

I urge the AAAS and the editors of Science to become mindful of this vital issue for the future of science in this country.

Sincerely
Steven Pinker
Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology
Harvard University
William James Hall 964
33 Kirkland St.
Cambridge, MA 02138

www.stevenpinker.com

sapinker@twitter

facebook.com/StevenPinkerPage

Enclosures:

Tweet from former behavioral sciences editor of Science, Tage Rai [JAC: below]

Solicitation letter from Prof. Ann Bostrom [JAC: below the fold]


Here’s the AAAS’s response to Pinker from Holden Thorp, the Editor in Chief of Science and its stable of journals. (I’ve redacted phone numbers and email addresses.)

From: Holden Thorp Sent: Sunday, May 1, 2022 10:02 AMTo: Pinker, Steven Subject: FW: Response to “Setting an ambitious goal for Earth Day”

Dr. Pinker,

                Thanks for your note.  We’re sorry to lose you as a donor, but I disagree with your analysis.  We will continue to cover the evidence for and impact of systemic racism.   Thanks for your support of AAAS in the past.

Holden

Holden Thorp

Editor-in-Chief, Science Family of Journals1200 New York Ave NWWashington, DC  20005


JAC:  Thorp’s non-response is disturbing. “I disagree with your analysis,” he says. Does that include the issues of both systemic racism and nuclear power.? We don’t know, as Thorp doesn’t mention what he disagrees with!

Pinker is an AAAS Fellow and crafted a long and reasoned argument. He surely deserved more than a “thanks, but no thanks” reply from the editor of Science!

This suggests that Thorp is simply not interested in engaging with a reasoned argument, wedded as he is to Science‘s “wokeist” ideology. And believe me, I’ve seen that wokeism many times, not just in Science but in Nature and its own stable of journals.

The explicit wedding of the world’s two premier science journals to political ideology is not a good sign, as it prioritizes politics over science. And all too often, politically infused science is ineffective science.

 

Click “continue reading” below to see Ann Bostrom’s original solicitation for donations:

Continue reading “Pinker vs. the AAAS on the politicization of climate change—and science in general”

New paper on “cancel culture in science”

February 7, 2022 • 9:38 am

This paper written by four chemists just appeared in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (“Chemistry News”), the news outlet outlet of the German Chemical Society. It’s in English, and free online, so you should be able to open the paper by clicking the screenshot below. It’s a call for scientists to resist ideological pressures that may distort or reject science, as happened during the “Lysenko affair” in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The thesis of the paper is this: whereas scientific censorship used to come from the top (cf. Lysenko/Stalin, with “proper” genetics enforced by the government, or Nazi Germany, which decried “Jewish physics”, driving many great physicists out of the country), now the “cancellation” begins on the bottom, with social media sites and readers pressuring journal editors or publishing companies, sometimes resulting in the rejection of sound papers because they contravene an established ideological narrative. And there is also policing of language. This kind of “cancellation,” of course, has to come ultimately from the top, but is propelled by disaffected people on social media.

A few quotes from the paper (indented)

The modern form: cancel culture

Suppression today takes the form of „Cancel Culture“, censorship administered not by repressive governments but by Twitter vigilantes, an „outrage mob“ „whose goal is to sanction or punish … individuals or organization[s] they consider responsible for something that offends, insults, or affronts their beliefs, values, or feelings“.1)

Consider the cancellation of chemist Tomáš Hudlický,4,5) who in 2020 published an essay in Angewandte Chemie discussing the progress of organic synthesis and expressing his views on the hiring practices and training of scientists and the integrity of the literature.

The publication sparked a Twitter firestorm that condemned the article as „offensive“, „inflammatory“; the content as „alienating“, „hurtful“, „xenophobic“; the paper as „abhorrent“, „egregious“; and Hudlický as „racist“, „misogynist“, a „slithering insect“. Sixteen editorial board members resigned in protest of the publication. The journal removed the paper from its website (an unprecedented act), issued an abject apology, suspended two editors, and began an internal investigation. Condemnation ensued in blogs, journals, and statements issued by chemical societies.

We invite readers to read Hudlický’s essay and his elaboration to the National Academy of Scholars.5) Whether one agrees with his views or not, a civilised debate should have ensued, not an avalanche of insults. The journal could have invited a rebuttal; instead it capitulated to the mob.

Hudlický’s cancellation did not end there. A planned special issue of Synthesis in his honour was cancelled, invitations to speak at conferences and to review papers ceased, citations to his papers were deleted, and collaborators were encouraged to dissociate themselves from him.

The cancellation of geophysicist Dorian Abbot is another example of censoring an individual’s scientific contributions because of his views on non-scientific matters.6–8) Abbot had been invited to deliver a public lecture at MIT on „climate and the potential for life on other planets“. But a small group of activists, outraged by Abbot’s advocacy8) for equal opportunity, fairness, merit-based evaluation, and academic freedom, initiated a social media campaign to uninvite him. MIT quickly cancelled the event, violating their own „policy of open research and free interchange of information among scholars“.

These examples underscore authorities’ responsibility to resist outrage mobs: „Although outrage mobs often trigger the punishment process, in Western democracies, mobs no longer actually burn witches at stakes. … Mobs do not get papers retracted; that is the decision of editors and editorial boards. Thus, the key turning point in whether an academic outrage mob is effective at punishing an academic for their ideas is … the action of authorities.“1)

Well, one can argue about whether a civilized debate could have ensued: that may be impossible in these days when people get heated up and censorious so quickly. But what cannot and should not happen is for editors to bow to social-media pressure just to reduce the heat.  Yes, they can go back and “look at” a paper to see if it’s sound, but all too often that reexamination is selective, spurred by the social-media mob, and with editors looking for reasons to censor papers or talks.

The Dorian Abbot cancellation, which I’ve written about before (see posts here), is unforgivable (MIT is the culprit). Because Abbot had used social media to oppose DEI initiatives, public outcry made the MIT administration cancel a prestigious invited lecture—one that had nothing to do with DEI. It was a public lecture on global warming and the possibility of alien life.

The point is that science should oppose the incursion of political views into science, though we should not forget, of course, that some science has been done with political ends, and that scientific results have sometimes been warped to meet these ends. Scientists are not purely apolitical animals, and sometimes it affects their work.

But it doesn’t help that journals are now policing science and its language to ensure that people don’t get offended. Get a load of this from the Krylov et al paper (emphasis is mine).

Some institutions have actually institutionalised censorship. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), a major publisher, has issued guidelines10) for editors to „consider whether or not any content … might have the potential to cause offence“. An RSC memo explains that the guidelines were developed in response to the Hudlický affair.

The document elaborates: „The aim of this guidance is to help you to identify and prevent the publication of inappropriate content in our journals and books.… Words, depictions and imagery have the potential to cause offence…. There can be a disparity between the intention of an author and how their content might be received – it is the perception of the recipient that determines offence, regardless of author intent.“

The editors are instructed to be on the lookout for „[a]ny content that could reasonably offend someone on the basis of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, marital or parental status, physical features, national origin, social status or disability“ or are „[l]ikely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people“. These guidelines are so broad as to justify censoring anything in chemistry and beyond.

Note that, like the NYT’s firing of Donald McNeil after he used the “n-word” in a didactic context,the RSC is taking the NYT’s stance that “Intent is irrelevant.” All that matters is how offended someone is by a remark, not what the person who made the remark actually meant or intended. That is not a rational way to deal with conflict, and of course the law distinguishes regularly between intentional and accidental harm.

Krylov et al. end like this:

Censorship is antithetical to science. Rather than turning social media censorship into policy, scientific leadership worldwide should reject cancel culture and defend the core principle of science – the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth.

This kind of censorship happens all the time in the humanities: think of Rebecca Tuvel’s demonization when she wrote a philosophical paper on transracialism vs. transsecualism. She survived that one, but others haven’t.

As a coda here, the editors of Nachrichten were besieged with social-media pushback, especially strong for a paper that isn’t that controversial. There were not only tweets, but phone calls and actual letters to the journal, all complaining about the paper and calling for its retraction. I forgot to mention, and am adding this later, that the overwhelming majority of comments on social media, including tweets, were positive: approving of the paper’s message. There are a whole lot of silent people out there who don’t like cancel culture and abhor the “science needs a reckoning” attitude.

There was a rebuttal published only a couple of days after Krylov et al. came out and accusations that the authors were anti-Semitic because they discussed scientific suppression by the Nazis (the second author of the Krylov et al. piece is Jewish. . .)

The journal is now creating a “portal” for people to weigh in about the paper. But if a paper complaining about cancel culture itself gets so much heated reaction, this bodes very poorly for the future of objective scientific discourse.

I once thought that science would be the last area where the Woke would exercise their policing, but I was wrong. Given the power and respect afforded by many to science, it’s only natural that people who see science as “just another narrative”, or those who want that power and respect to devolve on themselves, would go after science in general.  Although individual scientists of the past are being scrutinized for political or moral stands that wouldn’t pass muster today, remember that it is science itself that is being accused of being harmful, racist, and a vehicle for white supremacy, and “colonialism.”

The inanities of Scientific American—almost all within just one year

January 26, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I’m tired of beating up on Scientific American, even though the magazine saw its best days years ago and is superannuated—it was founded in 1845 and has published work by 200 Nobel Laureates.  No, I’m not going to say that—I’ll let someone else do it. That someone is Peter Burns, who, at Medium, wrote the article below (click on the screenshot to read it):

There’s not a lot new here, as Burns just reiterates that Sci. Am. published the much-discussed hit piece on Ed Wilson, calling him a racist (Gregor Mendel was also tarred with that label) only a few days after Wilson died. I know of no evidence that Wilson was a racist, though some hint darkly that they will produce that evidence. And surely Mendel was not a racist. He might have been an ageist (see below), but I’ll eat my hat if they dig out evidence that the friar was dire.

Burns goes through Monica McLemore’s ludicrous hit-job, but says about the same thing I did, so you can read for yourself.  He did dig into McLemore’s links, though, and here’s a bit of Burns worth reading:

You really should read that study; it’s an all-time classic of conflating science with ideology—and yet its inanities are taken seriously!

Before I go, I want to do two more things. First, make a joke (at bottom) and second, give a list of all the ludicrous pro-“elect” articles (I’m reading McWhorter’s book) that have recently appeared in Scientific American, as well as articles that are purely ideological and have nothing to do with science.  The Wilson hit-job was not a one-off thing. The bits in bold below link to my posts, and in plain text to the Sci. Am. articles. These are just articles I’ve written about that were called to my attention by readers; I don’t read the rag, and I’m sure there are others. I’ve not included the Wilson hit piece, which I discussed here.

1.) Bizarre acronym pecksniffery in Scientific American.Title: “Why the term ‘JEDI’ is problematic for describing programs that promote justice, diversity, equity, and Inclusion.”

2.) More bias in Scientific American, this time in a “news” article. Title: “New math research group reflects a schism in the field.”

3.) Scientific American again posting non-scientific political editorials.Title: “The anti-critical race theory movement will profoundly effect public education.

4.) Scientific American (and math) go full woke.  Title: “Modern mathematics confronts its white, patriarchal past.”

5.) Scientific American: Denying evolution is white supremacy. Title: “Denial of evolution is a form of white supremacy.”

6.) Scientific American publishes misleading and distorted op-ed lauding Palestine and demonizing Israel, accompanied by a pro-Palestinian petition. Title: “Health care workers call for support of Palestinians.” (The title is still up but see #7 below)

7.) Scientific American withdraws anti-Semitic op-ed. Title of original article is above, but now a withdrawal appears (they vanished the text): “Editor’s Note: This article fell outside the scope of Scientific American and has been removed.”   Now, apparently, nothing falls outside the scope of the magazine!

8.) Scientific American: Religious or “spiritual” treatment of mental illness produces better outcomes. Title: “Psychiatry needs to get right with God.”

9.)  Scientific American: Transgender girls belong on girl’s sports teams. Title:  “Trans girls belong on girls’ sports teams.”

and one more for an even ten, as I’m not going to spend another minute doing this:

10.) Former Scientific American editor, writing in the magazine, suggests that science may find evidence for God using telescopes and other instruments. Title: “Can science rule out God?

Is ten enough to show you where the magazine is going? I’m surprised that the sub-editors don’t quit en masse. After all, these article were all published within the last three years.

Enough.

Let me finish by recounting a joke I made in my first post defending Mendel that several authors have now claimed for themselves. This is what Burns says:

Seriously, how was Gregor Mendel a racist? This guy spent his entire life in a monastery in Brno (in what is now the Czech Republic) observing peas grow. Unless he wrote somewhere that yellow peas are racially superior to green peas, I don’t see why his name was on the list.

I won’t call him out for theft of humor, but here’s what I said in my first post:

We’ve talked about most of these people before, and yes, they had ideas that today would be considered racist, but Darwin was also an abolitionist. And MENDEL, for crying out loud? Find me one piece of Mendel’s writings that suggest that the good friar was a racist! Were green peas considered superior to yellow peas? Here we have McLemore simply making stuff up: throwing Mendel’s discoveries of inheritance into the pot with the other accused “racists.” This is dreadful scholarship, almost humorous in its ignorant assertions.

Look, the green vs. yellow trope was mine (it’s slight but it’s okay), but if you want to steal something better, here’s a trope I suggest:

Mendel found that the shape of round peas was genetically dominant over that of wrinkled peas. This is nothing more than ageism on Mendel’s part.

If you read that anywhere from now on, remember that it’s been lifted from here.  And I’ll be here all year, folks!

 

Round vs. wrinkled peas. Actually, the recessive “wrinkled” trait is more prized by breeders, as wrinkled peas are sweeter.